Proving non-existence, and other impossible things

If someone knows something has been published, either a specific thing or a category of things on a topic, I’m pretty decent at pointing them toward that thing. I’ve had a whole lot of practice with this set of skills — I’ve been doing this day in and day out for twelve and a half years, now. I’ve done this more often than I’ve done nearly anything else in my life, including things like “go to bed at night” and “eat a meal.”

But for a whole category of things, all this experience simply means that I have a slightly better sense of when to give up and suggest that maybe the thing we’re looking for doesn’t exist. I’ve looked enough times for biographical information or for the personal papers of even relatively famous people to know that many, many people just don’t have much of a textual/audio/video/pictorial footprint after they die, even in relatively recent times and in pretty developed countries. Lots and lots of organizations don’t maintain extensive records/archives, especially not records we have access to. For that matter, many governments don’t share much information, or if they do it’s not guaranteed that it’ll be available online.

But this is such an uncomfortable outcome for a research question because how can I be sure that the thing doesn’t actually exist? How do I know I’m done searching? How do I know we’ve looked in the right places? It’s utterly nerve-wracking to be faced with potential non-existence, especially these days when we’ve grown so used to more and more and more being available. We’ve grown so used to living in a world where we have to deliberately keep personal information private that the world of our grandparents, let alone our great grandparents, is almost incomprehensible. Depending on particularly socially conscious family members to submit birth, wedding, and death announcements to local newspapers, or partnerships between families and archives to preserve select family papers — all of this simply doesn’t make sense to most of us in our current lives.

So I spent quality time last week trying to figure out if the blind reviewer on a faculty member’s manuscript simply mis-remembered the number of articles by a particular author in a particular publication, or if our lack of indexing for that publication was keeping some of this potential treasure trove of publications from surfacing. This week I’ve spent a few hours trying to figure out if a relatively famous Jesuit priest and Hiroshima A-bomb survivor left behind any letters or other writings before he died. In each case I found something, but nothing like the amount I had hoped for, which felt like failure, but also felt like the kind of failure I’ve experienced over and over in situations like these.

I wonder what other librarians’ criteria are for declaring a thing “likely not to exist.” I wonder how much subject knowledge vs how much knowledge of publication processes someone needs to do this well.

I know that for me there’s a weird circular logic involved in which if I can’t find the thing and I also can’t find people citing the thing, then I’m more likely to declare it non-existent. This is true even though I know that there are plenty of things that haven’t been cited but that do indeed exist. So I’ll start with the likely places (depending on the thing, this could be one or more research databases, or my good friend Google, or with a human expert). Then I’ll move to the less likely places and/or strip away anything in my searches that might have been mis-remembered or misspelled. (At this point there’s usually a whole bunch of paging through really weird result lists in hopes of finding anything that would point me in the right direction.) And I’ll search for anyone writing about whatever I’m hoping to find, hoping for clues about what they saw and where they saw it. And finally I’ll search through more context-less citations, first trying Web of Knowledge citation searching, but always also moving through Google Scholar, Google Books (you get different results if you go to Google Books rather than relying on just regular Google), and our free-text-search databases like JSTOR and Project Muse and the like. And at this point I always strip things down to just the author’s last name (if known – some citation styles don’t include first names) and other things that are less likely to be changed or abbreviated. This usually includes paging through tons of completely wonky results.

So basically, this mopping up of possible citations can take a whole ton of time, most of which is spent wondering whether you just have the wrong information about the thing, or if the thing actually doesn’t exist. And I haven’t figured out any way of speeding up this process or of predicting the outcome in less than several hours. So I guess in the absence of better strategies the only thing I can do is reframe the experience for myself. Maybe I can start thinking of the skill it takes to decide a thing isn’t findable rather than concentrating on the failure to find the thing.

What works for you, fellow searchers?

One thought on “Proving non-existence, and other impossible things

  1. Iris, this is a great question, but not limited to publication processes. I usually have to deal with the question regarding statistical data, namely, “does this market/industry/financial data exist for this company/this place/these years?” On the subject knowledge side, you do have to think about the level of detail or aggregation in the datasets, like industry codes or demographic or psychographic categories. Or even if the data *could* exist (ex. regarding financial data from private companies).

    In general, yes, I agree, we do have to work through the core possible sources or tools and at some point make an informed decision that we have done enough to conclude the desired info doesn’t exist. And then try to convince the patron that she/he should trust us and move on to the next best thing!

Leave a Reply